The Blue Flash: Nuclear Accidents and the Origins of Superhero Origins


There's been an accident. The young scientist–or, perhaps, his lab assistant or friends–stands stunned. He knows he's been washed in a massive dose of radiation. He knows his life will never be the same.

In the real-world, the victims of criticality accidents spend time in the hospital. Some die. In fiction, they wake up with powers beyond the imagination of normal humans.

Researching the history of criticality accidents made me wonder how accidental exposure to massive levels of radiation became the de rigueur method of achieving superhero-dom. And, while I suppose comic book writers would have a well-formed opinion or two on this, I decided to ask a group of people whose point of view I'd never seen–actual nuclear scientists.

To get the scientists' perspective on superhero origins, I turned to three men:

Niel Wald is professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh's department of Environmental and Occupational Health, where he studies the effects of radiation on the human body. Ron Pevey is an associate professor at the University of Tennessee who researches criticality safety, and nuclear reactor analysis and design. Geoff Meggitt is a retired health physicist, and former editor of the Journal of Radiological Protection, who worked for the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and its later commercial offshoots for 25 years.

None of them found the nuclear influence on comics particularly surprising. Even Wald, who said he's never read any comics and completely missed the whole phenomenon of radioactive spiders, gamma rays and the like, wasn't terribly startled to find out such things existed.

I worked on a number of weapons tests in Nevada. Before dawn you'd be in the dark and suddenly the mountain ranges 50 miles away would be lit up like noonday, he said.

With that kind of awe-(and fear)-inspiring backdrop, it's no wonder writers dipped into the nuclear well. But even if we'd never tested an actual A-bomb, we might still have ended up with nuclear-powered superheroes. Ron Pevey remembers comic book stories involving irradiated heroes that date to the 1930s. The public fascination with the transformative power of radiation goes back further than 1945.

Pevey thinks its a case of pop culture mixing two scientific facts.

In the first part of the 20th century, the evolutionary scientists were expressing the idea that maybe cosmic radiation, which we've lived with on earth for our whole history, might have caused some changes to our DNA. Radiation can do that. At the same time, people were learning about evolution, which depends on random changes. I think that caught their imagination. That connection between radiation and evolution. I remember one of the earliest stories I read where they put this guy into a chamber and irradiated him, and he evolved before their eyes. Really he would have just died, but the idea remains.

In fact, the idea could go back further still, Geoff Meggitt says, back to the patent medicines that dominated the turn of the 20th century—the heyday of which coincided with the discovery of radium. With tragic consequences.

It was seen to have near magical properties: radium glowing perpetually in the dark, x-rays seeing into people. Radium drinks were thought to give vitality. Also radiation did achieve some remarkable cures of medical conditions from the very early days – and still does. So magical and transforming!

He points out the case of Eben Byers, the socialite son of a wealthy American industrialist, who died in 1932 after drinking more than 1000 bottles of a "medicine" made up of radium dissolved in water.

But the final piece of the puzzle–and probably an important one, at least for anybody who appreciates Alan Moore's "Watchmen"–is the eerie blue glow reported by some witnesses of criticality accidents. You saw a recreation of it back on Wednesday, if you followed the link to watch the fictionalized movie version of Louis Slotin's 1946 accident.

Niel Wald suspects this flash of unnatural color helped add to the mysterious nature of radiation, and created an almost ready-written Zap/Pow moment when you can see that everything has changed.

But what is the blue glow? Where's it come from? On that point, even scientists disagree. Wald and Meggitt think it has to do with the way charged particles released by a nuclear chain reaction interact with oxygen and water molecules in the air. But there's another theory.

Ron Pevey thinks the blue glow is caused by something called Cerenkov radiation. Basically, it's what happens when atomic particles travel faster through something–like water–than light can travel through that same material.

It sounds strange because we're used to saying that nothing travels faster than the speed of light. But the truth is that that's only true in a vacuum. Light doesn't travel that fast in water. Electrons, neutrons and little alpha particles can actually travel faster through that medium than light can, and that's what causes the blue glow. It's a weird thing. Astronauts have experienced it, too. And there's some speculation that, when this is seen outside of a watery environment, that it's actually occurring in the water in your eyeball.

Image of Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen movie publicity stills.